Mammoth steppe can stop climate change

Tens of thousands of years ago, when large ice sheets covered the north, Europe was covered in a mammoth steppe. Can the mammoth bring this steppe back and thus cool the climate?

The end of the mammoth steppe marked a return of the forests

The mammoth, a close relative of the African and Indian elephant species, became extinct from overhunting thousands of years ago. This immediately led to major changes in nature in the Northern Hemisphere. Because without mammoths clearing saplings and trampling moss, there were no more grazers to keep them under control. The trees took their chance and overgrown the grass. In a few hundred years, the waving grass had been replaced by the familiar enormous belt of endless forests around the Arctic Circle. This had direct consequences for the climate. Unlike grass, forest absorbs a lot more light. The result: the earth warmed up. Unlike tropical rainforests, tundra and taiga are much less biologically productive than grassland. Few animal species can survive in the taiga.

Can the mammoth bring back the steppe?

A group of Russian scientists put it to the test. In a desolate corner in the far northeast of Siberia, what they Pleistocene Park they reintroduced large grazers such as Yakut wild horses, bisons and musk oxen. The consequences: the mosses were crushed and the grassland slowly returned. The herds of hungry grazers also break the snow cover in winter. The temperature of the soil dropped from -5 degrees to 30 degrees below freezing. This stabilized the dangerous methane clathrates in the subsurface, which now regularly explode.

The mammoth was the king of the mammoth steppe. Could the Mammoth's Return Save Earth? Source: Thomas Quine / Royal Victoria Museum, Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, 2018

Yet even large animals such as musk oxen cannot do much against meter-high trees. For better demolition work you really need a grazer the size of an elephant. So a mammoth. It is true that humans can tackle these trees with bulldozers, and when it comes to demolition we humans are at a lonely height, but the required scale of ecological engineering is higher than what humans can handle. We better leave that to animals that prefer nothing more.

Some ecologists believe that reintroduction of the mammoth can bring the mammoth steppe back to life. Now there is only a small problem. As is known, the mammoth is extinct. We may have discovered the remains of frozen mammoths, but resurrecting an extinct species like the mammoth is something that has never been attempted before. But, the good news is, we're getting closer to the moment we can bring mammoths back to life.

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